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Hospitals Plan to Keep MERS Virus from Spreading

Passengers walk past the medical quarantine area showing information for the MERS virus at Manila's International Airport in April 16, 2014.

Passengers walk past the medical quarantine area showing information for the MERS virus at Manila's International Airport in April 16, 2014.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, has infected more than 500 people since it was first identified two years ago. About 30 percent of those infected die from the disease. Health officials have expressed concern about the sharp rise in the number of MERS cases in recent months. They also noted that the virus has infected people in Asia, Europe and North America.

Health officials are considering what they need to do to prepare for a pandemic – when a disease affects many people over a wide area.

The last pandemic took place in 2009. That was when officials were concerned about the H1N1 influenza virus. The World Health Organization says MERS is a long way from becoming a pandemic. Most cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia. They involve people with close contact with MERS patients or with camels that carry the virus.

However, a virus can change at any time. So officials say there is need for concern. Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck heads the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“It’s a new virus. It has a very high death rate, but we need to learn more about how easily it’s transmitted, and what are some of the signs and symptoms.”

In the United States, many hospitals already have plans to keep the virus from spreading. Dr. Gabe Kelen works at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. His job is to make sure the plan covers all of the 46,000 people at both Johns Hopkins University and its medical center.

“I’m not that concerned yet. However, for our level of preparation, we want to stay ahead of the curve. That should this happened, we’re not playing catch-up.”

This is not just for MERS, but for any infectious disease.

“When anyone comes into the emergency department with an influence-like illness, we already have a protocol to screen them and to test them. And if we believe they may have a serious infection, they get isolated, they get a mask. Anyone who goes in after to deal with that patient has certain precautions.”

Doctors, their aides and even cleaning crews might have to wear special clothing, gloves and masks.

During the H1N1 influenza pandemic, hospitals set up special areas to test patients suspected of carrying the flu. Some of these clinics operated in shelters outside the main hospital building. This custom could be repeated to prevent the spread of a virus, and lower the chance it could change into something even more deadly.

“The more often it (a virus) gets transmitted, the more the virus replicates. The more the virus replicates and in different hosts, the more likely its genetic makeup may change.”

In the early 2000s, health officials were concerned about the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The world learned that an infectious disease is a health challenge everywhere, largely because of air travel. Countries found they had to share information about diseases in an effort to control them.

Later this year, millions of people will go to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj – the largest gathering of Muslims in the world. Health officials around the world will be carefully watching. I’m Bob Doughty.

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